Like you, I was normal. Or at least normal enough. That is, until that fateful day in June 2021 when I read Carl Zimmer’s article in the New York Times, Many People Have a Vivid ‘Mind’s Eye,’ While Others Have None at All. Zimmer wrote: “When (patient) M.X. thought of people or objects, he did not see them.” Of course, he didn’t see them, I conjectured… people can’t see things in their minds! Wait a minute, are there people who can see things in their minds!? And with this profound awareness, my aphantasia journey began. My newfound knowledge of aphantasia gave me an “out” of sorts. I could use the “aphantasia stamp” and blame aphantasia for all my perceived shortcomings.
The Aphantasia Stamp
For me, discovering aphantasia was like a big plot twist in a movie where I’m the main character, and the movie is my life. It’s as if I turned around, looked back at everything that had happened to me, and reevaluated all of it from a completely new perspective.
So, movie flashbacks aren’t just creative storytelling devices!? And “counting sheep” isn’t just a metaphor? Wait a minute… what about imaginary childhood friends? Or how people say that a character looks different in the streaming series than in the book? Mind. Blown.
And that’s when I found it—the rubber “aphantasia” stamp.
You know the kind of stamp I’m talking about. Those little ink stamps that you press down to imprint a word or phrase on paper? My metaphorical stamp was similar; only it imprinted the word “aphantasia” onto every facet of my life. Can’t spell a word correctly? STAMP—it must be my newly discovered aphantasia. Struggling to navigate? STAMP—that must be aphantasia, too. Aha! So that’s why I have no sense of humor! STAMP—aphantasia.
I began to blame aphantasia for everything! It was so easy and liberating, and I was running out of ink.
Stamp All the Things
At first, the stamp felt like a magic wand. The immediate relief of identifying a root cause for all my perceived shortcomings was cathartic. It quickly became my go-to explanation and all-encompassing rationale for anything I found challenging or peculiar about myself. It was as if my aphantasia had instantly provided me with a built-in scapegoat.
In one sense, this rubber stamp helped ease the stress and uncertainty I felt during a tumultuous period marked by a cascade of self-doubt and confusion. I grappled with lingering questions that gnawed at my confidence and left me feeling isolated. Why did I seem to struggle more than others to recall faces or places with clarity? Why did certain tasks that seemed so inherently visual in nature, like planning a room’s decor or recalling the vivid details of a past event, seem almost Herculean to me? These questions weren’t just academic curiosities; they were constant reminders of my perceived inadequacies.
I wondered whether my career choices, my hobbies, and even my interpersonal relationships were unwittingly shaped by this unseen cognitive difference. The uncertainty wasn’t just about what I couldn’t do; it was about understanding who I was in the absence of this ability that others took for granted.
Aphantasia provided an answer, however superficial, to these questions. But it was also a trap, a convenient way to absolve myself from taking any further action or responsibility. I was pigeonholing myself without even realizing it.
There is a term for someone who unintentionally misleads others: misinformer. This term describes a person who spreads misinformation, which refers to false or inaccurate information, but without the intention to deceive. Misinformers differ from disinformers, who deliberately spread false information to deceive or mislead others. Misinformers may do so due to a lack of knowledge, misunderstanding, or mistake rather than a deliberate intent to deceive.
In my eagerness to share my newfound understanding of aphantasia among friends and on social networks, I unintentionally contributed to a confusing narrative about what aphantasia is and isn’t. Each Reddit post, tweet, Facebook post, or casual conversation where I linked my various personal challenges directly to aphantasia—without a deep understanding of the condition—potentially misinformed my audience.
This eagerness to apply an aphantasia stamp to a wide range of experiences not only oversimplified my aphantasia but also risked spreading a skewed or exaggerated perspective to others. As I enthusiastically told friends that my poor sense of direction or inability to spell was due to aphantasia, I unknowingly propagated a limited and possibly inaccurate understanding of this complex neurological phenomenon. This dissemination of half-baked truths not only muddied my own comprehension but also possibly influenced how others perceived or understood aphantasia, perpetuating a cycle of misinformation.
Misattribution and Simplification
My first problem was the act of misattribution. Aphantasia is specific to the inability to visualize, and it may not be the culprit behind every unrelated condition or struggle. For example, difficulty with directions may relate more to spatial intelligence than aphantasia. Meditation struggles? What about hypnosis? These struggles are quite common across the board and not unique to those who can’t visualize, though non-visualizers can definitely have trouble with guided visual meditation and hypnosis.
Attributing unrelated conditions or shortcomings to aphantasia also risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I stamped “aphantasia” onto various aspects of my life, the less motivated I was to make improvements or seek alternative explanations. Why try to memorize this sheet music, I’d ask myself, if I won’t be able to recall it visually anyway?
My second issue was simplification. The human brain is a complex organ with multiple cognitive functions interwoven into a delicate dance. Reducing everything to a single word overlooks this complexity and can result in resignation rather than a nuanced understanding. After all, each cognitive function often involves a range of skills and neurological pathways, not just the ability to create mental images. If there’s one thing I’ve learned by participating in the Aphantasia Network virtual meet-ups, it’s that we’re all different, and neurodiversity is abundant!
Just as you wouldn’t use a “fragile” stamp as an all-encompassing label for every package in a warehouse—some items are durable, others are liquid, and yet others are perishable—the “aphantasia” stamp is not a one-size-fits-all explanation for life’s complexities. It may offer some clarity and avenues for adaptation in specific contexts, but it is not a universal answer. Like any condition, aphantasia intersects with a much larger psychological and neurological landscape.
Unveiling the Truth
The turning point for me came when I began talking to others with aphantasia and reading scientific studies and articles. Researchers like Adam Zeman, who first coined the term aphantasia, have delved into the specifics of the condition without extending its scope irresponsibly. Studies have shown that aphantasia affects the brain’s ability to produce visual imagery, but it doesn’t automatically influence other skills like language comprehension or the ability to perform mental rotation tasks. This enlightenment led me to question my usage of the aphantasia stamp.
The new Aphantasia Guide addresses other common misconceptions about aphantasia.
Avoiding the Aphantasia Stamp Trap
Here are some tips to avoid falling into the stamp trap:
- Question the Attribution: Before stamping “aphantasia” onto any challenge or limitation you experience, ask yourself if there’s any scientific or logical reason to do so.
- Seek Multiple Perspectives: Consult with professionals (recognizing that aphantasia may be new to them, too) or read credible research to determine the actual scope of aphantasia’s impact on various cognitive functions.
- Self-Assessment and Skill Building: Instead of blaming aphantasia, focus on improving your skills in areas you find challenging. Use learning strategies that don’t rely on mental imagery.
- Be Mindful of Complexity: Remember that human cognition is intricate, and we’re all neurodiverse. Don’t reduce it to a single label.
By cautiously using my rubber aphantasia stamp only when applicable, I can foster a more nuanced understanding of myself. I’ve stopped seeing aphantasia as an overarching explanation for all my challenges and started to see it as a specific aspect of my cognitive functioning—one that I could adapt to and work with rather than use as a limitation.
Aphantasia is part of me, but it isn’t the whole me. And the rubber aphantasia stamp? It’s there in my drawer, used sparingly and only when appropriate.